Western wall and the Temple Mount
Western wall and the Temple MountMati Amar/TPS

Last Wednesday (23 November), Israeli Jews were impressed with the example set by the Druze community. The Druze stood together, erect and proud, as they made it clear that they would not countenance any delay in the return of the abducted body of young Tiran Fero. From left to right, Jews looked on with respect, whether or not they approve of vigilantism in the face of terrorism.

Amid the virulent anti-Semitism experienced by Israeli sports reporters in Doha, Eli Chitrik walks around openly in full Hasidic garb and is treated respectfully.

Founder of the NGO ‘The Home,’ Inon Dan Kehati, 42, suggests that exposure to the uncompromising stance of the Druze opens Israeli Jews up to new conversations about the nature of being a proud Jew in our sovereign nation. Kehati believes that when we connect with our roots, we will engage differently with our Arab neighbors on both sides of the Green Line. And our approach to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict will not be that offered by either the left or the right today. A major activity of ‘The Home’ has been the ‘Clean the Hate’ activities in which Palestinians from the PA join with Jews in Jerusalem to clean up litter on city streets to show their love of the land and to develop trust between the two peoples.

Kehati spoke to me on Zoom from Jerusalem, first about the goals of ‘The Home,’ and then about what led a secular Jew from Tel Aviv to remain secular yet wax eloquent about the Temple Mount.

Question: Many groups are trying to promote peace and coexistence with our Arab neighbors. What makes ‘The Home’ different from these?

When a leftist engages with a Palestinian with the approach that says “we are willing to give you parts of our homeland and you give us peace in return”, that is not going to bring peace. It is amusing to the Palestinians. They use that leftist to achieve their interests and what they want is Palestine from the River to the Sea.

On the other hand, the right seems to believe we can restore our sovereignty to Judea and Samaria without dialogue with Palestinian communities and, even, by ‘inviting’ them to leave the land.

It creates a different dynamic when you come with respect for your own identity, with dignity, loyal to your identity, engaging with the other side with respect for them but also respecting yourself.

There is no compromise for me. We have no right to give up what our ancestors were praying for and because of which we are here. But we need to include the Palestinian communities in the program. We must internalize that without including the Palestinians in the political future of our land, one way or another - we will not be able to achieve our aspirations. If we will not have the wisdom to know how to do this, you know, bring them into the big picture, it will not happen.

Question: What is the ‘big picture’?

I envision a scenario that is based on the Torah and the vision of the prophets of Israel. I am not inventing anything. I’m just interpreting, translating, and adapting ancient values from our unique sources and the Kingdoms of Israel to modern times and I think this is what the mission of our generation is. The State of Israel is like a tool, to bring us to complete redemption and this is an integral part of Zionism.

Zionism is not only the self-determination of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. We have achieved the ingathering of the exiles and sovereignty. We are now stuck at the point at which we need to deepen the meaning of a Jewish state, to create an alliance with the non-Jews who recognize our sovereignty here and therefore to restore our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, and, of course, to resolve the issue of the Temple, which is the ‘House of Prayer for all Peoples,’ it’s universal. Not only for us. We have the responsibility to take the initiative.

Question:And your Palestinian friends continue talking with you after you say that?

Yes, most of them do. I recognize that for them it is their home, it is Palestine from the River to the Sea. I will never be able to change that for them Palestine is their homeland. If they recognize that for me it is Israel from the River to the Sea as well, we can work together.

I tell them that I am in favor of ending what they call ‘the occupation.’ I tell them that for me it is military rule, “but I recognize that for you it is an occupation,” I say, “and I want to include you in a system that is going to be deeply Jewish under Jewish rule but both of us will be under the same laws, the same rights and the same obligations. But in a Jewish system. In this way, we are going to end what you call occupation.”

Question: How do they accept this when they call Israel “the illegitimate Zionist entity”?

I tell them they can accept it or not. This is what I believe in and this is what it’s going to be. And we are the strong ones here. We don’t need to apologize for being strong.

When we are thinking like the west, the Palestinians do not see us as authentic. They see us as colonialists and not as people who came from here. We need to reconnect with our civilization from before we went into exile.

What we have now, as my friend Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen says, is a European state with Jewish decorations. We have a Jewish majority, a Jewish army, a Jewish economy, but it’s not fully with Jewish values.

When I talk with Palestinians about the significance of a Jewish state, it’s different from what they hear from others, those who talk about excluding them and do not see them as partners. Within Judaism, we have clear principles about how to treat the ‘Ger’, the non-Jew within our bounds.

Therefore, I think that they do not experience me as patronizing or treating them as second-class citizens. The future I aspire for is something I want to include them in.

This is the bottom line – if this process and political framework will be legitimate among the Palestinian people, not the Palestinian Authority or outside stakeholders, then it’s game over. We won’t have to go to the Americans and say, can you please confirm this?

But we are afraid to continue with Zionism, to take responsibility for the cradle of our civilization, to say enough with the outside interference.

Question: I see you refer to the Arab residents of Judea and Samaria as ‘Palestinians.’ Most right-wing Jews reject the idea of a Palestinian identity. Why do you not?

Before ‘The Home,’ back in 2014 when I applied for a job in a hasbara organization, I defined myself as half European Jew and half Arab Jew. They told me that there is no such thing as an Arab Jew. Perhaps there isn’t, but to say you are a European Jew was fine. I felt that I could not be part of an organization in which I cannot define myself as I see myself.

To this day, that experience resonates within me. Therefore, when some people say there is no such thing as a Palestinian and deny the fact that there are those who have a Palestinian identity, I disagree. But just because they define themselves as Palestinian doesn’t mean that I agree that they have the right to a Palestinian state.

Question: Did you always have these ideas?

No. I grew up in a very secular, almost atheist family in the bubble of Tel Aviv. My father was born here because his parents made Aliyah from Poland before the Holocaust but a lot of his family members were exterminated. My mother’s side is Yemenite; her father, Moses Kehati, was not religious, but a big believer in God who purchased many lands from the Arab elites for the State of Israel. He gave me the name Inon from the Psalms. My mother’s name is Tehilla and all the daughters have names from there.

Somehow I was always curious about the history of our people, especially the time of the Kingdom of Israel and the Temple. In elementary school, I did a project on the Temple. And, intellectually, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fascinated me. I still have the newspaper clippings on the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991.

I was a leftist supporting Meretz before the second intifada.

During the second intifada [2000-2005] I was a soldier, a boot camp instructor, sometimes doing guard duty in Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and the Gaza border. Everyone in Israel was affected by the horrors of the terrorist attacks. The lynch in Ramallah, the Dolfinarium, blowing up buses and cafes, all these things that we remember from the second intifada.

And that made me go from being leftist to being rightwing. It’s a process that happened to a lot of Israelis. Once you experience so many vicious attacks and see Palestinians being proud of it, you know that you are not facing something that can be dealt with in a conventional way. Our enemies want to annihilate us because we are Jews who are loyal to our forefathers' rights. That made me see that it is a religious conflict at its roots and not territorial.

Question: You are secular. But you understand it now as a religious conflict and you talk in religious terms about your vision. How do these fit together?

‘Secular’ is not the correct word here. I may be a Jew keeping fewer of the religious laws in the traditional orthodox way, but the Land of Israel, the Hebrew language, and the Torah are in my blood. And my Jewish universalist background, allows me to observe and learn without reaching the point of viewing all Arabs as ‘eternal enemies.’

I also understand and speak basic Arabic. Therefore I can understand what many Arabs, and especially their leadership, say among themselves - and they speak in terms of Jihad (religious war).

I believe that the root of the conflict is the lack of Islamic recognition of the legitimacy and relevance of Judaism, especially our historical right to sovereignty in any part of the land and our connection to the Temple Mount.

However, my experience is that tough conversations can change that. I find that by discussing our world through the prism of the Torah together with Muslims who view their world through the prism of the Quran, we come to see that both scriptures complete each other. This changes the nature of the discussion.

Question: This still does not explain how you came up with the idea for ‘The Home.’

After the attempted murder of Yehuda Glick on the Temple Mount [2014], something awoke in me and I wrote a Facebook post asking how a site that is exploited so much for war and for hate can be transformed into a site of peace and from which peace will begin.

A Palestinian named John responded to that post. An initial five-minute chat led to a five-hour conversation on Skype. I simply felt I had found a long-lost brother. We may not see everything eye to eye, but we have much in common on deep levels that I cannot explain.

John is Christian, an atheist in fact, and there is a strong possibility that he has Jewish roots. His family came from Yemen 500 years ago and took part in the establishment of Ramallah.

From this meeting with John, the idea of ‘The Home’ was born and it led to meeting many more Palestinians. That was the first time that I met the other side face to face without the filter of organizations or social media. Understanding their stories without all the filters, I brought my story as a Zionist Jew who is very pro-Israeli, engaging with them without sacrificing my deeply ingrained Jewish identity.

I have found when we engage with ‘the other’ we learn much more about ourselves, and at some deep level, this engagement makes us more resilient and brings us back to our own roots.

Question: What have you learned about yourself from these encounters?

I learned from them to view the land as one indivisible unit. I learned a connection to the land, to the soil, you know – the olive trees, something that we are missing. The connection to tradition. And at the same time, being able to live a secular lifestyle, not all Palestinians obviously. In the Arab mindset, you cannot separate the religious from the national, from the personal, from the political – it’s all intertwined. In the west, there’s separation between church/religion and state.

Gershon Hacohen, who influenced me a lot, said that many Muslims think in Biblical terms. They take examples from Islam, from their culture to show how they should deal with problems today. This is what we need to do as well. And for me, that does not mean necessarily becoming religiously observant.

Question: You said that Har Habayit is where peace will begin. Really?

First, before any agreed political solution will be implemented on the ground, there will be an intention to make peace. You know, in every peace agreement, there was ‘an event’ or a positioning that initiated that peace. With Egypt – the picture that initiated the peace was the picture of Sadat coming down the steps of his airplane in 1977 for a 2-day visit to Israel. This picture psychologically changed a lot of minds in Israel, unfortunately, less in Egypt, I guess.

What happened with the Oslo Accords was that the ‘peace intention’ came from the White House. Basically, the Americans raised their political status by making a stage on the White House lawn with Israeli and Palestinian leaders signing on American paper. We saw the results of that.

So I said, let’s do the opposite. Peace will come from the Temple Mount (Har Habayit) and the peace agreement will be signed there between Israel and the Palestinians with the world looking on. This was the idea that sparked ‘The Home’. Not just because Bayit is the same word for home in Hebrew and Arabic, and this land should be home, but more so because of Har Habayit, and uplifting the status of Jews, Palestinians, and Jerusalem in the world.

We don’t want to destroy, to exclude Muslims from the Temple Mount; it is a place of prayer for everyone. This is a central issue in our vision. I’ve been told not to approach that topic because it is a provocation, a trigger, but it is THE topic we need to talk about.